OPINION

Larry Nassar's Survivors Were 2018's Real Life Superheroes

To mark the end of 2018, we asked writers to revisit some of the year’s most noteworthy (for good or evil) events, people and ideas. See the other entries here between now and the new year.

It was just two weeks into 2018 when Kyle Stephens stepped up to the podium in a packed Michigan courtroom and faced Larry Nassar, the man who had abused her as a child. It was a Monday and the prosecutors overseeing the case against Nassar expected 88 girls and women to show up over the next few days and read victim impact statements as part of his sentencing process.

Stephens was the first.

“You used my body for six years for your own sexual gratification. That is unforgivable. I’ve been coming for you for a long time,” she told him. And then she uttered the words that would spread across the world: “Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”

A full week later, the number of girls and women who spoke swelled from 88 to 156. One hundred and fifty six. An army of survivors.

The weeklong reading of their statements was an anomaly in some ways. Typically, stories like the ones the girls and women told are ignored or presented in cold, unfeeling, and brief newscasts or write-ups.

Not this time.

Together, they took what was a tragedy and made it feel like a triumph.

These women and girls demanded to be heard and the responding coverage was unfiltered, for days on end, capturing the attention of international media, actually ending in punishment for the perpetrator. Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison for sexual abuse. That was on top of a 60-year sentence for child pornography he received in 2017.

But there was one aspect to what unfolded that was overwhelmingly inspiring and transformative: one victim telling their story publicly leading to another and another and another.

As victims of Nassar saw others sharing their stories and confront their abusers, more wanted to do the same. Many put their names in the public record for the first time, broadcasting them to the world. Some were Olympians, some current or former university athletes, most of them gymnasts. Stephens was none of these; she was the daughter of friends of Nassar and his family.

They had been telling their stories and reporting his behavior since at least 1997. It took two decades for someone to finally listen to them, believe them, and do something to stop him.

In all, over 300 girls and women have reported that Nassar assaulted them.

Bravery builds on bravery. The Sister Survivors who took down Larry Nassar are a quintessential example. And I will never forget what they did and what they continue to do.

The survivors of Larry Nassar's abuse received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2018 ESPYS.
The survivors of Larry Nassar's abuse received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2018 ESPYS.

It was hard to listen to them all share their experiences of not only abuse but of so many people disbelieving them when they came forward, of the institutions that ignored their reports, and even of family members that refused to listen. Many of them cried or choked over their words, but still, they all spoke.

It was beautiful, a phoenix of voices rising out of the ashes of pain and trauma, a sisterhood of support and righteous anger. Together, they took what was a tragedy and made it feel like a triumph. To say it was inspiring undersells the impact of it all.

While standing in the courtroom and in front of cameras, the survivors didn’t just confront the man who harmed them. They also repeatedly called out the people and institutions that had failed them and enabled his crimes: the US Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics, Michigan State and its administrators, gym owners, coaches and trainers.

Over this year, they have translated those words into action. Some have testified before Congress about USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee, they continue to tell their stories publicly in the media, they show up and speak out Michigan State board meetings, they are suing in court and they settled one with Michigan State worth $500 million. They want to make sure this never happens again. 

We should all have similar goals. Perhaps the biggest lesson we should all take from the still-unfolding web of enablers around Larry Nassar is to listen to and believe survivors. This has been an often-repeated sentiment over the last year or so and it seems simple enough. But, in practice, clearly, it is not.

The biggest lesson we should all take from the still-unfolding web of enablers around Larry Nassar is to listen to and believe survivors.

When I think about what we witnessed in January in that courtroom in Michigan, my mind goes to the women who have told their stories repeatedly about R. Kelly (a recent  screening of a new film, “Surviving R. Kelly,” had to be evacuated because of a bomb threat). I think about the women who told The New York Times about their experiences at a Ford plant outside of the Chicago, or the wrestlers who reported abuse by a team doctor in the 1990s, or the women who have come forward about the USC gynecologist who abused hundreds of patients.

We are primed to assume that reports of sexual violence are as likely to be false as true (they aren’t), that nice men who are nice to us can’t harm others, and that we should doubt the experiences of girls and see women as dramatic and untrustworthy (there’s a reason the word “hysterical” has “uterus” as it root). Starting from a place of believing and taking seriously reports of abuse or violence is a small but radical step in our society.

In sports, in particular, we must learn from these survivors. We have to stop prioritizing winning over and above everything, recognize that just because someone is in a position of authority does not make them inherently good, and continue to push sports media to improve how it tackles this issue.

Because this problem isn’t going away and ignoring it or calling it a “distraction” will only serve to make it all worse.

Rachael Denhollander hugs Larissa Boyce at the conclusion of Larry Nassar's sentencing.
Rachael Denhollander hugs Larissa Boyce at the conclusion of Larry Nassar's sentencing.

The last woman to give her victim impact statement was Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly come forward back about Nassar in September 2016. Her story in the Indianapolis Star started all of this. And it makes sense to end 2018 with her words from that day.

“Look around the courtroom. Remember what you have witnessed these past seven days,” Denhollander said. “This is what it looks like when” someone abuses, others ignore it, and a culture exists “where a predator can flourish, unafraid and unabated. ... This is what it looks like. It looks like a courtroom full of survivors who carry deep wounds. Women and girls who have banded together to fight for themselves because no one else would do it.”

Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, an author and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.”

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